Envisioning a Sustainable World

Published: October 8th, 2012

By Donella Meadows

Donella Meadows, one of the founders of the Balaton Group and an early advocate of systems thinking. (image credit: Donella Meadows Institute

This is an edited transcript of part of a talk given by Donella Meadows at the 1994 meeting of the International Society for Ecological Economics in San José, Costa Rica, and recorded by Peter Griesinger. Meadows, cofounder of the Balaton Group, passed away in 2001, but she has inspired a generation to hold onto, build, and share their visions of a sustainable world. A video of her full talk can be viewed here.

We need clarity about our goals. We need to know where we are going. We need to have vision. And that vision has to be articulated, it has to be socially shared, and discussed, and formulated.

There’s a tendency when we get involved in the problems—as a result of the lack of implementation, of money, of resources, of models and information, and vision—to go immediately to implementation, and talk first and primarily in that arena. How do we get governments to work better together? How do we get the money raised? But before that we need to be sure that our models are clear, that our information is accurate, and above all we need to be sure that we know where we’re going.

Bob Costanza reminded me that the title of this session was “Envisioning a Sustainable Future.” And I realized that I had fallen into the trap that we modelers, and the politicians, and almost everyone falls into, which is to take the last steps first. To talk about the implementation or the model, skipping over or taking for granted the vision and goal.

I want to talk about vision and encourage all of us to do that—a subject, by the way, which I could say I am completely unqualified to talk about, having had no training. In fact, I would say, in the scientific, northern training I have had, I’ve been systematically untrained to find and communicate vision. But, in another sense, I don’t think any of us need training. I think what we need to do is to brush away some of our training and rediscover our ability to vision, to see goals, to make the idea of a sustainable world a living picture in our minds and other people’s minds so that we know what we are talking about and know where we’re going.

What I’m going to do is to try and share the little bit I have learned by playing with the idea of vision and incorporating it into my own life. I think I probably don’t have to tell you that when we, particularly we on the environmental side of things, start talking about a sustainable world, we somehow engender a vision of sacrifice, a vision of having much less, a vision of tight central control, of deep regulations, a loss of freedom. Whether we communicate that because it’s in our heads or because it’s in the culture we’re communicating to, I think you probably know that most environmentalists are not considered people that put forth exciting visions. They generally are assumed to be people who are calling for great sacrifice. And this must say something about the vision in our culture of what a sustainable world is like.

I think that we are all born with a sense of what the world should be like and what we deeply want the world to be like. You ask a child to make a vision of a sustainable world and it comes flowing forth and there’s not a bit of resistance. So this is clearly something we have had engendered into us by two things. One is the general culture, particularly the scientific, objective culture. And second, by our disappointments: as we grow old, we’ve tried things, they haven’t worked, and instead of using disappointments to learn lessons and become more effective in pushing toward our vision, we’ve let go of our vision.

The visioning process is an articulation of “what you really want, not what you think you can get,” says Meadows, who notes that the end of apartheid South Africa was unimaginable until it happened. Space travel was the same. Pictured here is the exhaust plume from space shuttle Atlantis, 2011. (image credit: Dick Clark/NASA)

Remember, when you envision, that you are trying to state, articulate, or see what you really want, not what you think you can get. It’s very quick for most of us rationally trained people to go out to the farthest envelope of what we think is possible. We are putting all kinds of analysis and models in there of what is possible. I never would have said that it was possible for apartheid to end in South Africa, or for the whole of the Eastern world to come back towards democracy. And yet it happened. So that tells you something about our model of possibilities. You have to throw them away. You have to think about what you want. That’s the essence of vision. What is a sustainable world that you would like to live in? That would satisfy your deepest dreams and longings?

Second, if you can get there, to that picture, you are under no obligation, whatsoever, to tell us how to get there from here. The easiest way to shoot down a visionary is to have someone express a vision, and you say, “Oh yeah, but how do we get there from here?” And if the visionary can’t tell you, you sweep away the vision. This is our rational left-brain working again. My experience in having, now many times, created a vision and then actually brought it, in some form, into being, my experience is that I never know at the beginning how to get there but, as I articulate the vision, put it out, share it with people, it gets more polished, and the path reveals itself. And it would have never revealed itself if I were not putting out the vision of what I really wanted and finding that other people really want it, too. Holding on to the vision reveals the path and there’s no need to judge the vision by whether the path is apparent.

As I said already, the visioning, wherever it comes from, I don’t understand this at all, it isn’t a rational place, and it doesn’t come from figuring out. But visions do have to be honed by rationality. There does need to be a responsibility in vision. I can envision climbing to the top of a tree and flying off. I may really want to do that but my rationality and my knowledge of how the world works tells me that’s not a responsible vision.

Visions become responsible through all sort of processes. The best one I know is sharing it with other people who bring in their knowledge, their points of view, and their visions. The more a vision is shared, the more responsible it gets, and also the more ethical.

Another thing I’ve discovered is that once I’m clear and have worked on a vision, it becomes more and more real to me. I can literally see it. I’ve been working on this vision of a sustainable world for a long time. I can literally see it in Technicolor, in some detail, and it gets better and better the more I learn, the more I ask other people. It lives in me, a sustainable world that isn’t a sacrifice or a bunch of difficult regulations, a sustainable world that I would love to live in. And having such a vision alive in me prevents me from selling out to something less that someone may be offering me, such as a vision of perpetual economic growth, which is pretty much the vision that the entire field of economics gives us. Growth isn’t what I want. Growth has nothing to do with what I want. And I think that the only reason growth—which is a terribly abstract and, when you think about it, stupid vision of the future—can be sold so easily in every policy arena is that there’s no alternative vision.

An alternative, sustainable world is, of course, where resource regeneration is at least as great as resource depletion. It’s a world where emissions are no greater than the ability of the planet to absorb and process those emissions. Of course it’s a world where the population is stable or maybe even decreasing; where prices internalize all costs; a place where no one is hungry or desperately poor; a place where there is true enduring democracy. These are some of the things I have in my part of the vision. But most of those are physically necessary or socially necessary parts of the vision. They form the responsible structure that you know has got to be part of the vision. But, then, what else? What more? What would make this a world that would make you excited to get up in the morning and go to work in?

I’m going to ask you now to close your eyes, because that’s the best place to find a vision: within yourself, without distractions. And I’m going to lead just a little, ask you to look at, literally with your mind’s eye, a sustainable world. And what I caution you to do, since I’ve now done it many times, is don’t push it, don’t feel you’re a failure if nothing comes, and don’t grasp too hard to see something. Just notice what happens. That’s all you have to do. This needs to be a very relaxing exercise.

Donella Meadows asks us to look at, “literally with [our] mind’s eye, a sustainable world.” How do people live? What is their work? How do they move about? All of these details, from local to global, should be filled in however we choose when we envision a better future. (image credit: 350.org)

Start near home, in your home, whatever your home looks like, a home you would love to live in. One that’s comfortable and beautiful and sustainable. Look around. What does that home look like, inside and outside? Who’s there? What does it feel like to live there, to work there, to eat there, to get up in the morning? What does it feel like to walk out the door into your community, your neighborhood? Rural or urban or in between? What’s the neighborhood like—the one that you would love to live in, that is sustainable, and knows itself to be sustainable, a world that can be handed down, intact, to the children and the grandchildren of that neighborhood? Physically, what is the neighborhood like? What does the built environment look like? Where is nature, and what is it like? What kind of energy is powering this neighborhood? What types of materials? Where does the water come from, where does it go? Who’s living there? How do they make their living? Where do they go to make their living? If out of the neighborhood, how do they get there? How do you communicate in the neighborhood and with other neighborhoods? How often? By what means? About what?

And now, if you can, move up a little bit, to a bigger view of several neighborhoods together, a whole city, or a whole rural area, a whole state or province where you live, working sustainably in a way you would love it to work. Look at your whole nation. What does it look like? What does it feel like? How are decisions made? How are conflicts resolved? What kinds of technologies are being used and being born?

Now go to the whole world, sustainable, full of nations and neighborhoods, cities, and rural areas where people love to live, where they know their children and their grandchildren will have an even more intact, more sustainable, more exciting world than the one they live in. What kind of world is that? How do people of different kinds, colors, and cultures communicate? How do they learn from each other? How do they get along with each other? How do they resolve conflicts?

Spend just another few seconds in your sustainable world, looking at anything you want to look at, envisioning anything you want to envision about this world in which you would love to live. And when you’re ready, open your eyes and come back to the unsustainable real world.

Visioning is the first step, and a continuous step, because visions continue to get revised and shared and built and elaborated and made more rich and more true.


This article is was originally published in the September 2012 Solutions Journal.

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About The Donella Meadows Project

The mission of the Donella Meadows Project is to preserve Donella (Dana) H. Meadows’s legacy as an inspiring leader, scholar, writer, and teacher; to manage the intellectual property rights related to Dana’s published work; to provide and maintain a comprehensive and easily accessible archive of her work online, including articles, columns, and letters; to develop new resources and programs that apply her ideas to current issues and make them available to an ever-larger network of students, practitioners, and leaders in social change.  Read More

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